The most powerful phrase in American history is probably this: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Those words in the Declaration of Independence were a collaboration by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson originally wrote: "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." When he turned over his draft to Franklin for the sake of proofreading, Franklin removed the words "sacred and undeniable" and inserted "self-evident."
The full sentence is: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Jefferson's idea was to rebut a political theory known as the Divine Right of Kings, that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority. A king supposedly derives his right to rule directly from the will of God. This means the king is not subject to the will of his people, and a king can do no wrong. At one time, people actually believed that baloney.
In 1776, the Second Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to pen a Declaration of Independence from Britain. The men agreed that Jefferson was the best writer, so he got the job. The committee kept no minutes and so nobody is quite sure how things progressed. But it's generally believed that it took Jefferson two weeks, from June 11 to June 28, 1776, to finish the Declaration.
Many items were removed from the original draft, including words that condemned the slave trade written by Jefferson even though Jefferson himself kept slaves.
Interestingly, a 1776 British abolitionist named Thomas Day responded to the apparent hypocrisy with this comment:
"If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves." It took another 87 years before America freed its slaves.
Today, it can be hard for us to get a grip on the political and social turmoil of the 1700s, or the realization that America's original sin was the enslavement of an entire race.
It's also hard to understand that the Declaration of Independence, voted on in Philadelphia, saw only nine of thirteen original colonies vote in favor of it. Pennsylvania actually voted against the Declaration. Go figure.
Another piece of curiosity: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others convened the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in July 1848, where they drafted and signed a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments, saying: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal."
The fight for equality in America continues.
Last week, on June 25, 2011, the state of New York 19 million people took a step forward and passed legislation to establish equality in marriage. Not civil unions. Not the old separate but equal nonsense. Instead, New York will provide for true equality when it comes to the basic human right to marry. This is happening 235 years after the signing of the Declaration. Better late than never.
All Americans must pay taxes. All Americans can fight for their country. But not all Americans can marry the person they love. And some Americans are still denied the right to visit their life partner in the hospital. For many, equality in America is still an elusive dream. It doesn't happen when John Hancock puts his name on a document. Equality takes a few hundred years to evolve. Minorities will always need to fight for basic civil rights, and so the American experiment continues.
Happy Fourth of July to all, and godspeed the fight for equal rights.